Characters Around the Church:Book review by Theresa Newell, LCJE North America Coordinator
Witnesses to the Birth of the Jerusalem Church
Tom Houston, Characters Around the Church: Witnesses to the Birth of the Jerusalem Church (Tain: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd. 2003, www.christianfocus.com). 275 pages.
This, the third of the “Bible characters” books by Tom Houston, is of particular interest to those involved in Jewish evangelism because it details the personae who appear in the first chapters of The Book of Acts. Houston writes that the book should properly be titled “Characters around the earliest Church.” It is the part of church history that Andrew Walls calls “the First Age” in his construct of six phases of the Christian story. [i] “Early church” histories rush past the all-Jewish Jerusalem church before moving quickly to the “time of the gentiles.” While the early holocausts of AD 70 and 135 changed everything, Luke captured the decades of the Jewish Jerusalem church in Acts to which Houston focuses his readers.
Houston touches on the subtle and real differences that existed between the hebraioi and the hellenistai within this Jewish Jerusalem church before AD70, between Peter and James (representative of the Hebrew believers) and Stephen and Barnabas (Hellenistic Jews from the diaspora), details which are filled in so well by David J. Bosch. [ii]
There are hints (the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius the centurion) that the Gospel will extend outside of Jerusalem and the Jews and bring about the first theological and ecclesiological dilemma for the early Church elders (Acts 15), but this book centers on the Jewish church of Jerusalem and the characters that people the stage of that intense drama and, as the title suggests, witness to it.
And drama there is: an ascension through the clouds of the crucified and risen Leader, the suicide of one of the Twelve, the fire and wind of the Spirit, Peter’s first sermon preached to thousands in their own languages followed by revival and immersions, miraculous healings, leaders hauled before religious courts, imprisonments, miraculous deliverances, all-night prayer meetings, death judgments against lying church members, and the first church council held to decide what to do about gentile believers who were being found by the Jewish Messiah – all happening in Jerusalem in the first years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Houston adds imagination to the text about each person involved in this drama but grounds it in solid biblical theology, word studies, and context. I sometimes wished for a footnote here and there, but Houston is telling a story not writing a scholarly tome. By including chapters on characters outside the Church (e.g., Gamaliel, Herod Agrippa I, Simon Magus, the Sadducees), Houston paints in the social, political and religious background setting of the day.
In each chapter, he adds applications for today and uses examples of modern day missionaries to illustrate the timelessness of the trials experienced by these apostolic witnesses. Bosch points out that the noun “witness(es)” occurs thirteen times in Acts, for the apostles were told that they would be Jesus’ witnesses (Acts 1:2,8; cf. 10:41; 13:31; John 15:27). [iii] Houston’s stories of Stephen and James supply the first record of the church’s martyrs, and thus he makes direct application to today’s witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus on the mission field.
This book carries a brief addendum titled “Preaching on Bible Characters” that give helpful hints for those who climb into pulpits each Sabbath. He suggests that the characters in this book would be best preached during the Easter and Pentecost seasons. (His two earlier books in this series focus on the characters around the events of the birth and death of Jesus). The artwork on the cover of each book is a simple outline of characters with a number on each one in a familiar arrangement reminiscent of a “paint-by-number” art kit. It is a good visual for the characters between the covers that “fill in the blanks” chapter by chapter.
This most readable book should not be limited to preachers and teachers but recommended to all believers. The focus on the Jewish men and women who peopled this earliest church, the use of the title “Messiah” for Jesus, and the details of the pre-Pauline dynamics of life in the Jerusalem-centered revival underline the Jewishness of the Apostolic era in a fresh way.
Finally, Houston adds an important final chapter, “Jesus’ Tears for Jerusalem.” Here he writes of Jesus’ love for Jerusalem and sketches the history of the city until the present day “ingathering” of the Jews to the Land and of the presence there again of Jewish believers. It brought to mind the chapter added to the revision of David Flusser’s book, Jesus, titled “Additional Considerations: Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem” showing the Lukan portrayal of Jesus and his love for the city and its people. [iv]
These postscripts serve to bridge the distance between the 1st century and the 21st. There is, once again, a gathering and witnessing Jewish church in Jerusalem.
1. The Missionary Movement in Christian
History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books,
1996). p. 16.